Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dolphins in the Desert II

Continuing to share stories of submariners assigned as IAs or otherwise in the Global War on Terror, today's story focuses on the former CO of the New Hampshire initial manning crew, now the commanding officer of Camp Bucca:

Camp Bucca, Iraq -- Navy Capt. Bruce A. Derenski unrolls a poster-size photo of Camp Bucca that was taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle and spreads it out on the trailer floor.

He uses his cribbage board to hold down a corner. The game, popular among East Coast submarine officers, is one of the few reminders of his background in his new office.

Derenski, of Preston, has submarine magazine ads from World War II and the seal for the New Hampshire, a Virginia-class submarine under construction at Electric Boat in Groton, on the wall. He drinks out of a coffee mug from a submarine birthday ball.

Other than that, it could be an Army officer working here.

A large Camp Bucca flag is in the corner, body armor rests in front of the desk and a dusty copy of Arabic for beginners is on the table. Clocks tell local time, Zulu time and Eastern Standard Time. A map on the wall shows the routes to Basra.

At Camp Bucca, Derenski wears a 9mm handgun strapped to his thigh and his dog tags around his neck. The only thing that separates his appearance from that of an Army officer is the tan desert-camouflage uniform. The Army's are green.

Soldiers and airmen occasionally call him “Colonel” — the eagle-rank insignia he wears is the same as that worn by an Army or Air Force colonel.

Before he came to Iraq, Derenski was the commanding officer of the New Hampshire. He is now an “individual augmentee” serving since January as commander of Forward Operating Base Camp Bucca, the area of the detainee facility where the service members live.

Navy officers and sailors are aiding the Army and Marines by temporarily leaving their regular roles on ships and with shore commands to serve on the ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. About 12,000 are currently doing so.

On a recent day, Derenski dealt with everything from broken equipment to briefing an incoming National Guard unit and planning for serious security problems, like a suicide bomber at the gate.

“There's been a spate of suicide bombings in Baghdad in public places and we need to look at contingency planning in case that activity works its way south,” he says.

Four Army officers enter his office and surround the UAV photo. They figure out where to treat the injured. They determine which roads to close and which areas to cordon off. And they end the meeting knowing what to do if there is an attack.

Derenski is responsible for logistics, support and base defense at Camp Bucca, an Army-run facility that houses 20,000 detainees in southern Iraq.

About 60 percent of the 5,000 service members at Camp Bucca are in the Army or National Guard. The remaining 40 percent are two-thirds Air Force and one-third Navy, plus a few Marines and Coast Guardsmen.

“We're all Type A's here and Navy guys, more than most, are used to being 'the man,' ” Derenski said. “Then you have the built-in culture barrier and language barrier. What I thought was my job was others' and they get mad when I try to do it for them.”

“I still run up on the rocks sometimes,” he added, “but not as often anymore.”


The bottoms of Derenski's boots are worn down, even though they're only a month old.

He goes to his office to check e-mail — on average about 250 to 300 messages a day—because that is the most effective way to communicate when everyone works different shifts. But he prefers to walk the dusty paths around the facility, checking to see if the situation on the ground matches the reports he is getting.

There is only one paved road at Camp Bucca; the rest are covered with small rocks that pass for gravel. The land is flat. There is no grass, no trees, no permanent buildings — just tents and trailers surrounded by fine, clay sand.

Piles of dirt topped with concertina wire enclose the one-mile-by-two-mile area, and a concrete barrier known as the “great wall” separates the detainees' living area from that of the service members. Beige is the predominant color. Flies, in search of moisture, are everywhere, often aiming for the eyes, nose and mouth.

Temperatures are in the 80s and 90s and are considered cool for this part of the world. In the summer months, it often reaches 130 and 140 degrees.

“There are so many dark corners around here with activities. Most of the time they're doing what they're supposed to do, but things break and decay,” Derenski says on his way to drop in, unannounced, on another unit. “People suffer in silence because they can't get the things they need to put it back to the way it belongs.”

He carries a scrap piece of paper and makes a list of all the problems he encounters — malfunctioning air-conditioning, jammed cabinet door, broken light fixture, computer trouble, stuck warehouse doors.

When he goes back to the office at night, he will send out e-mails to get everything fixed. He normally works until 9 or 10 p.m., seven days a week.

“It's long days, but when you get to the end of your day here, you know you did something,” Derenski says. “It's not something abstract, like a plan or a strategy. It's something you can point to and say, 'I did that, and it made things better.' ”

Derenski volunteered to serve in Iraq for personal reasons. His other options for his next assignment mostly involved moving his family, which he was reluctant to do with two sons in high school. His family has stayed in Preston, and the boys are enrolled at Norwich Free Academy.

By volunteering, he also has more say in where his next assignment will be. He has already picked out the perfect place: Groton.

Even if he could not return to the Naval Submarine Base in the fall, he says, going to Iraq still would have been the right decision. He likes dealing with a lot of moving parts and large-scale complexity.

“I couldn't have hand-picked a better job,” he says.

The Day runs this series from their paper. Here is a link to the main page.

No comments: